Epictetus was a philosopher, but in The Art of Living he comes across as practical and hardly theoretical at all. This is only slightly because Sharon Lebell’s translation repackages him for a contemporary audience. You pick up some of his view of the nature of reality occasionally. Mostly, though, he is like someone sitting across the table giving you advice. The closest thing to this by a modern philosopher that I remember reading is The Examined Life by Robert Nozick.
According to Epictetus, the first step to wise living is lowering your opinion of yourself or letting go of conceit. Now in the 21st century West, we talk a lot about self-esteem. So it might seem that Epictetus opens a door to depression and self-destructive behavior. It is important to hear that he is not saying to devalue yourself.
Here is what he seems to be be saying:
Too many people are shallow and self-absorbed.
Too many people think they know more than they really do.
Too many people try to shoehorn every new situation into the framework of their past experience. They say that this new experience is just like some previous experience.
Epictetus says to “behold the world fresh–as it is, on its own terms–through the eyes of a beginner” (p. 86).
If you are conceited you assume–based on experience, education, or some other credential— that you come to a new thing with an advantage over others, and that others ought to defer to your credentials. One problem with this is that it will seem arrogant to others. But the deeper problem is that it confuses learned data with wisdom and so blocks you from learning new things and even from flourishing in life. “Clear thinking and self-importance cannot logically coexist” (p. 87).
You may fear looking incompetent. This fear causes you to avoid experimenting, getting lost, and fumbling around. Ultimately this fear prevents doing anything well, because life constantly calls for trying out new behaviors and ideas.
Also, being too smug will cause you to miss wisdom, which often comes from unexpected places and unexpected people.
But if you are humble, you can still take satisfaction in the things you do well. Such satisfaction is not conceited.
You need to avoid regret about your status or relationships, like how much money you have or who you married. People who constantly say “if only. . .” diminish their potential. This whiney attitude comes from overvaluing such things as money and status. And important step toward fulfillment involves moderating your desires.
Epictetus admitted that this would be hard to do at first. It takes steady patience to let go of pride and attachment to your stuff.
So Stoics call for a path of renunciation. This will correlate with other spiritual traditions like Buddhism and Christianity.
The problem with the path of renunciation for folks today may be that we are very much in favor of renunciation for other people. The flame wars in political comments on the Web show that intellectual humility is what we think those people on the other side need.
Also, the 1% should renounce wealth. But the rest of us can easily put ourselves in a category of the underprivileged or oppressed. We buy lottery tickets and hope. But that is still attachment to money and status, even when we don’t have either.